ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON was born in Edinburgh in 1850. The son of a prosperous civil engineer, he was expected to follow the family profession but finally was allowed to study law at Edinburgh University. Stevenson reacted violently against the Presbyterian respectability of the city’s professional classes and this led to painful clashes with his parents. In his early twenties he became afflicted with a severe respiratory illness from which he was to suffer for the rest of his life. In 1879 he nearly killed himself traveling to California to marry Fanny Osbourne, an American ten years his senior. Together they continued his search for a climate kind to his fragile health, eventually settling in Samoa, where he died on 3 December 1894.
Stevenson’s Calvinistic upbringing gave him a preoccupation with predestination and a fascination with the presence of evil. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he explores the darker side of the human psyche, and the character of the Master in The Master of Ballantrae (1889) was intended to be “all I know of the Devil.” Stevenson began his literary career as an essayist and travel writer, but the success of Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886) established his reputation for tales of action and adventure. Kidnapped and its sequel Catriona (1893), The Master of Ballantrae, and stories such as “Thrawn Janet” and “The Merry Men” also reveal his knowledge and feeling for the Scottish cultural past. During the last years of his life Stevenson’s creative range developed considerably, and The Beach of Falesá brought to fiction the kind of scene now associated with Conrad and Maugham. At the time of his death Robert Louis Stevenson was working on The Weir of Hermiston, at once a romantic historical novel and a reworking of one of Stevenson’s own most distressing experiences, the conflict between father and son.
JOHN SEELYE is graduate research professor of American literature at the University of Florida. He is the author of The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain in the Movies: A Meditation, and Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Literature.
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
Edited with an Introduction by
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by
Charles Scribner & Sons 1894
This edition with an introduction by John Seelye
published in Penguin Books 1999
Introduction copyright © John Seelye, 1999
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850–1894.
Treasure Island/Robert Louis Stevenson;
edited with an introduction by John Seelye.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics)
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Treasure-trove—Fiction. 2. Pirates—Fiction.
I. Seelye, John D. II. Title. III. Series.
Printed in the United States of America
Set in Stempel Garamond
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Suggestions for Further Reading
THE OLD BUCCANEER
I. The Old Sea Dog at the “Admiral Benbow”
II. Black Dog Appears and Disappears
III. The Black Spot
IV. The Sea-Chest
V. The Last of the Blind Man
VI. The Captain’s Papers
THE SEA COOK
VII. I Go to Bristol
VIII. At the Sign of the “Spy-glass”
IX. Powder and Arms
X. The Voyage
XI. What I Heard in the Apple Barrel
XII. Council of War
MY SHORE ADVENTURE
XIII. How My Shore Adventure Began
XIV. The First Blow
XV. The Man of the Island
XVI. Narrative Continued by the Doctor:
How the Ship Was Abandoned
XVII. Narrative Continued by the Doctor:
The Jolly-boat’s Last Trip
XVIII. Narrative Continued by the Doctor:
End of the First Day’s Fighting
XIX. Narrative Resumed by Jim Hawkins:
The Garrison in the Stockade
XX. Silver’s Embassy
XXI. The Attack
My SEA ADVENTURE
XXII. How My Sea Adventure Began
XXIII. The Ebb-tide Runs
XXIV. The Cruise of the Coracle
XXV. I Strike the Jolly Roger
XXVI. Israel Hands
XXVII. “Pieces of Eight”
XXIX. The Black Spot Again
XXX. On Parole
XXXI. The Treasure Hunt—Flint’s Pointer
XXXII. The Treasure Hunt—The Voice among the Trees
XXXIII. The Fall of a Chieftain
XXXIV. And Last
Appendix A: “My First Book” (1894)
Appendix B: Tales of a Traveller
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is the quintessential British adventure story, and like so many such is aimed at a young and chiefly male readership. It belongs in part to the castaway tradition, commencing with Robinson Crusoe and continuing with The Swiss Family Robinson and Marryat’s Masterman Ready, all of which Stevenson read as a boy. But like other Stevenson tales, it was also inspired by the example and form of Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances, and contains as well characters obviously indebted to Charles Dickens, who had by midcentury replaced Scott as the popular author of the day.
But as fo
r the specifics of influence, Stevenson sums up his own sense of the tradition of adventure and individual talent in his poem “To the Hesitating Purchaser,” with which Treasure Island opens, citing three predecessors in the genre: “Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave, / Or Cooper of the wood and wave.” W. H. G. Kingston, author of Peter the Whaler and other nautical adventure stories written for boys, has been pretty much forgotten save by scholars of children’s literature, while R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island still has resonance, if only because it was parodied in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
But James Fenimore Cooper, the “American Scott” as he was called in his day, continues to be an author of considerable stature, celebrated for having created in the Leatherstocking Tales an epic of the frontier that inspired many imitators but no real competition. So famous are the historical romances in which his buckskin-clad hunter figures that most modern readers are unaware that Cooper wrote more stories of “the wave” than of “the wood,” anticipating the far greater romances of Herman Melville by drawing upon his own early career as a merchant sailor and officer in the U.S. Navy.
Of these The Pilot, written to correct errors of seamanship in Scott’s The Pirate and featuring John Paul Jones as the titular character; The Red Rover, a tale of pirate adventures with a captain who closely resembles Lord Byron; and The Sea Lions, about the hazards of hunting fur seals in the Antarctic, are perhaps the best, and certainly were read and admired in Stevenson’s own day. Indeed, as I hope to show, Stevenson adapted elements from The Sea Lions for Treasure Island, much as he admitted in a preface written in 1894 (and included here) to having borrowed, among other items, a palisade from Captain Marryat’s Masterman Ready, a skeleton from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” and, most important, his opening episode from Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller.
I say “most important” not so much because of the extent of Stevenson’s indebtedness, which may be checked by comparing the opening pages of Treasure Island with Irving’s episode (included here in an appendix), but because it is a key to a metaphorical trunk packed—like the curious contents found in the sea chest of Billy Bones—with American materials. Much as an argument can be made, based on geographic location and subject matter, that Robinson Crusoe is the first American novel, so I hope to show that Stevenson’s tale of pirates and treasure is, in terms of setting and situations, at the very least an Anglo-American adventure story, indebted not only to Irving and Cooper but perhaps to Mark Twain as well, for as the example of Rudyard Kipling demonstrates, adventure fiction had become something of an international zone by the 1890s, a period when Great Britain and the United States reached an important point of diplomatic rapprochement.
Stevenson’s name is often coupled with that of Kipling, his younger contemporary who was equally famous as a writer of adventure stories about and for boys, and there are telling parallels in their lives. Anticipating Kipling, Stevenson traveled to America at a critical point in his career, made a transcontinental passage, lived briefly in the silver-mining regions of California, and while in the United States married an American woman. Kipling resided for a time with his bride in Vermont, and there wrote the boys’ book that was his attempt at an American novel, Captains Courageous, and though Stevenson’s career as a novelist did not begin until after he returned to Great Britain, his experiences in America seem to have left a lasting impression upon him.
In return, Stevenson is generally credited with inspiring a revival of the literary romance in the United States shortly after his death in 1894; the best portrait of the writer was painted by the American artist John Singer Sargent; perhaps the most familiar image of the writer as an invalid is a bas-relief in bronze executed by another American artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and surely the most memorable illustrations associated with Stevenson’s romances are those by yet another American artist, N. C. Wyeth.
On the other hand, save for his brief American sojourn, the main outlines of Stevenson’s life and the subjects of his books were distinctly if on occasion idiosyncratically British—or, specifically, Scottish, Scotland being the place of his birth and boyhood. He was born in 1850 into a family of civil engineers, and was expected to continue in that tradition. He entered Edinburgh University in 1867 with the intention of studying engineering, an ambition thwarted by the ill health and consequent physical frailty that stayed with him from his childhood until his premature death, at forty-four. Stevenson then prepared himself for a career in law, but hated that profession, and instead began to foster the literary talent that had early manifested itself.
In effect, he turned his affliction into a profession, for while seldom mentioning his chronic sufferings from tuberculosis, he used his travels in pursuit of kindlier climates than Scotland’s as the basis for such books as An Inland Voyage (1878), about a trip by canoe through Belgium and France, and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, published the following year. In 1879 he made his epochal voyage to America, traveling with a colorful boatload of immigrants to the United States, and taking a train with fellow emigrants to California. The journey was yet another pursuit of literary material, but Stevenson was also after Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, a woman some years his senior whom he had met while touring France, and whom he married soon after he arrived on the West Coast and immediately after her divorce.
The Stevensons returned in 1880 to Scotland, where Louis built on his early career as a travel writer by a series of personal and critical essays, written in a charming and graceful manner that resulted in a positive critical reception but a meager income. These were gathered together as Virginibus Puerisque (1881) and Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), and in 1882 as well this prolific young writer produced the volume New Arabian Nights, a tribute to one of the favorite books of his childhood.
Stevenson, it can be said, never quite shook off his early years, and courted what became a familiar association with boyhood, as can be seen by his “Gossip on Romance,” to which should be added his essay “Child’s Play.” In 1883 he published Silverado Squatters, recollections of his brief stay in California, and in that same year appeared Treasure Island, a proximity that was not, as we shall see, without meaning. Stevenson’s first novel was written for his young stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, and the story of pirates and a fabulous hoard of doubloons has ever since appealed to young readers of, as the phrase has it, all ages.
There then followed a collection of poems for young readers, A Child’s Garden of Verses (1884), and other books of adventure fiction, but after Treasure Island the most important of Stevenson’s novels, published in 1886, was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a psychological thriller that still rivals Treasure Island in interest, as in the earlier instance kept fresh by a sequence of motion pictures that often loosely adhere to the original plot. Stevenson continued to turn out romantic adventure stories, Kidnapped (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888) being the best-known examples, and more serious fiction, such as The Master of Ballantrae (1889).
He also wrote a handful of superb short stories, perhaps the most famous of which, “A Lodging for a Night,” is about the rascally French poet François Villon. This remarkable productivity is characteristic of writers plagued by tuberculosis, instanced by the example of Laurence Sterne in the eighteenth century and, perhaps more pertinently, by Stevenson’s younger contemporary Stephen Crane, one of many American authors whose work shows signs of his influence.
Continuing to travel in quest of a better climate, the Stevensons returned to America in 1887, and lived for a time in the Adirondacks before heading to California once again, whence they took ship for the South Pacific and Samoa, where Stevenson spent the last five years of his brief life. He died while writing The Weir of Hermiston, a brilliant fragment that many critics have regarded as evidence that the author was a novelistic genius who had at last broken free from a reputation as a writer for children, but alas too late. Certainly, at forty-four, had Stevenson been blessed with good health, he could have lo
oked forward to at least another twenty years of creativity; but had he been so blessed, he undoubtedly would have been building roads, rail lines, and bridges, and not writing novels.
Indeed, his early death brought a suitable if tragic end to what many sorrowful readers regarded as a life no less romantic than the books he wrote, and hardly a decade passes without yet another biography that recites what are still mostly familiar facts. It was certainly fitting that a man who wrote both for boys and as a boy should die young, and though James Barrie had other sources of inspiration, we cannot doubt that the ghosts of Stevenson and his pirates hide in the darker shadows of Peter Pan, published on the tenth anniversary of his death.
Yet Stevenson’s Pan was hardly the merry airborne hermaphrodite we associate with Barrie’s play; rather, as in an essay he wrote on the subject, that “shaggy” wood god is associated by him not only with the freedom of the green world but with its terrors, “Pan” being the root word of panic. True, Barrie hinted that the frightful Captain Hook was Peter’s alter ego, the kind of man the anarchistic sprite would have grown up to become had he been allowed to grow up, but that connection is not openly acknowledged in the play, whereas Stevenson’s best-known stories for boys resonate with fearsome specters.
The best known of these is undoubtedly Blind Pew, that grotesquely cruel ogre who crawls out from the same dark shadows from which Dickens derived his own frightening human demons, such as Fagin and Monks in Oliver Twist, and who tap-taps his way into terrified imaginations as in one of the most memorable of Wyeth’s illustrations for Treasure Island. Stevenson may have credited his romances to daydreams, but much of the matter is the stuff of nightmare, and the gaunt, remorseless Pew is clearly a figuration of Death itself, much as it is the warrant for the murder of Billy Bones that he comes bearing with him to the Admiral Benbow Inn.
Pew is testimony that Stevenson could on occasion rival Dickens in the goblin market, but in Long John Silver he created one of the great originals in our literature. Whereas many of his literary characters were derived from romantic prototypes, Silver was inspired (as Stevenson acknowledged) by his friend the crippled poet and editor W. E. Henley, who overrode his own handicap with terrific personal energy and who was in his personal dealings often egregiously opportunistic and ethically ambivalent. Silver is a rascal so attractive in his makeup as to be the very personification of the amorality that Stevenson claimed for his adventure stories, being romances in which good and evil are much in evidence, with the former triumphing over the latter, but in which complex moral questions are seldom the main issue.